2020 Election
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Donald Trump Attacks Joe Biden More Than Other 2020 Rivals. Is He Afraid or Excited?

5 minute read

One thing is clear: Donald Trump is tweeting a lot about Joe Biden.

Among advisers to the former Democratic vice president, there’s a divide on whether that’s a sign that Trump is especially worried about facing the Democratic frontrunner in 2020 or because he’s eager to do so.

“The Kremlinology of President Trump’s tweets is a thing right now,” a Biden adviser said. “I cannot believe that we are trying to divine intent and discern Trump’s thinking or get inside his head based on what the President is tweeting at any given moment.”

Since Biden announced his third run for the presidential nomination on April 25, Trump has tweeted or retweeted Biden-related messages 62 times. The only other candidate to draw Trump’s ire during this time was Sen. Bernie Sanders, and even then only while Trump was heckling Biden.

Some inside the Biden camp see the tweets as a sign that they have gotten under Trump’s skin, that the President sees Biden as a legitimate threat to his re-election bid. Biden has a commanding lead in the current polls among Democrats, although the pragmatists inside his braintrust note that there are still months of a campaign slog ahead of them. Still, the camp that thinks they’ve rattled Trump see his attention as a badge of honor of sorts.

“He’s everything that Donald Trump isn’t — which is why he’s already Trump’s biggest target,” Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders said in a fundraising email on Sunday.

Yet for the skeptics, there is a sense that Trump may perceive Biden as the easiest to defeat, which is why Trump is elevating Biden with a nickname — “Sleepy Joe” — to prominence only to knock him down. For this camp, they worry that Trump is deploying a tactic he has used before: to simply will something into reality.

Still, in the latest CNN head-to-head poll, Biden in slightly better shape than Trump, which makes the argument that Trump wants to face Biden a little more difficult to argue.

When asked who would be the toughest opponent in a general election, the Trump campaign claims they don’t have a most feared foe, because they think every Democratic candidate will be pulled too far to the left during the bruising and crowded primary. “The Democrat, whoever it is, who emerges from the convention next year on their side, will be beat up and pretty much broke,” one Trump campaign official told TIME in April, “will not have a national organization to just flip the switch on, and will be saddled with all of the socialist policy ideas that they will be required to adopt in order to be the nominee.”

In the weeks since, Trump aides have also aggressively pushed an anti-Biden line of attack. “Job-killing Joe” is how his campaign press secretary branded him during a recent appearance on Fox News.

“When President Trumps talks about any socialist in the 2020 Democrat field, it’s generally him correcting the record, addressing direct attacks from those in the primary and pushing back on the endless attacks against his immensely successful record,” Trump campaign deputy communications director Erin Perrine told TIME on Monday. “In the case of Joe Biden, he directly attacked the President right out of the gate, and then mischaracterized the booming economy while speaking in a union hall.”

Every White House, of course, plays such a game. In 2012, aides to Barack Obama fastidiously refused to publicly discuss which of the Republicans they wanted to face — or whom they feared. Aides to George W. Bush heading into 2004 were remarkably disciplined in laying low until Democrats had largely settled on then-Sen. John Kerry as the nominee. The risk was that both White Houses could elevate would-be rivals or telegraph their own fears and vulnerabilities. When the Obama campaign drew Mitt Romney, they saw a technocrat who could claw back Indiana and North Carolina. When the Bush re-elect drew Kerry, they immediately realized they were running a bid during two wars against a decorated veteran.

In the case of Trump, it could be the latter, and the President is signaling his worries about Biden’s appeal among white, working-class voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Biden has long enjoyed an everyman appeal in those communities and skilled in one-on-one politicking. The President’s re-election map runs right through the states that, it can credibly be argued, are Biden’s strongest pockets.

Biden, for his part, has vowed not to attack fellow Democrats and to keep all of his interest on attacking Trump. One former top aide said Biden was going to make his race about his strengths in a race against Trump, not about any disagreements he may have with Democratic hopefuls. The result may be that Biden ties one hand behind his back, a unilateral disarmament ahead of the first debates in July, but that’s a risk, at least for the moment, Biden is comfortable taking.

— With reporting by Tessa Berenson

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com